Stressed-out nurses reach breaking point

NURSES in Lothian are taking a record amount of time off due to stress, anxiety or depression, new figures have revealed.

In 2011-12, more than 17,500 working days – or 160,524 nursing hours – were lost due to the mental health issues, a rise of more than 63 per cent compared with just five years ago, costing the health service around 
£2.1 million over the 12 months.

News of the rise comes amid claims front-line staff at NHS Lothian are being put under increasing pressure, as the health board battles to treat thousands of people who have been waiting longer than they should have for treatment.

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It follows the publication of a damning report into management culture at NHS Lothian, which found that bullying was rife in some areas.

Labour MSP and shadow health secretary Jackie Baillie described the figures as “extremely stark” and said more needed to be done to support burnt-out and exhausted staff.

She said: “This is clear evidence of the strain that nurses are being put under both in terms of NHS Lothian’s behaviour but also because there are 2500 fewer nurses in the NHS [nationwide].

“We have a situation in Lothian where stress-related absence has nearly doubled in five years. They need to reverse some of the cuts in nursing numbers.”

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Although the number of days lost to mental health issues rose for the third 
consecutive year last year, overall sick days taken by Lothians nursing staff fell to 95,652, down from 99,371 in 2010-11 and 100,461 in 2009-10.

Lynn McDowall, Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland professional officer for NHS Lothian, said that the increase in stress-related absences was “no surprise”.

She added: “We are deeply concerned at the steep rise in days lost due to stress, which may be symptomatic of the organisational culture and other issues raised earlier this year in the report on the management culture in NHS Lothian.

“We are already committed to working in partnership with the health board through the establishment of a group specifically to look at the culture within NHS Lothian.

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“Nursing is an emotionally and physically demanding job and, with continuing cuts to the number of nurses in what is an ageing workforce, the pressure on staff to deliver high-quality care with fewer resources is increasing.”

NHS Lothian pays its nurses an average wage of £13.30 per hour, meaning that in the five-year period, mental health-related absence among nurses has cost NHS Lothian in the region of £8.3m.

Lothian Conservative MSP Gavin Brown called on NHS Lothian to explain the rise. He said: “Nurses have incredibly difficult jobs and they should be treated with the utmost respect. We do not want to lose nursing days because of stress, anxiety or depression.

“We know over the past year there have been allegations of bullying and extreme work pressures, and this is something that cannot ­continue.”

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Nursing Standard, which is published by the RCN, said this week that 64 per cent of the 8000 UK nurses it surveyed said they have considered leaving the profession and more than eight in ten complained about workplace stress. The RCN also said it has seen a 38 per cent rise in staff seeking help from its counselling service.

NHS Lothian said a new electronic reporting system had been brought in between 2007 and 2009, accounting for the jump from 10,766 nursing days lost in 2007-8 to 14,826 in 2009-10. But between 2009-10 and 2011-12, when the same reporting system was used, the number of nursing days lost to mental health issues increased to 17,593 – a rise of nearly 20 per cent.

Tom Waterson, Unison branch chairman for Lothian, has worked with the health board to reduce sickness absence. He said the rise in figures for stress-related absence could be explained by managers using the new reporting system more efficiently and because people are now more open about mental health 
illness, but called for more investment in NHS Lothian’s internal counselling service.

He said: “Nursing is a 
highly-stressed job, particularly because of cutbacks.”

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Alan Boyter, NHS Lothian’s director of human resources and organisational development, said the health board had been “working hard” with trade unions to reduce sickness absence, leading to the overall drop. He said: “Our nurses do an excellent job and we have a range of policies to support those who are unwell.”

We exclusively revealed last month how some Lothian nurses had been working seven days a week for three months.

Scotland’s crisis

Fears have also been raised that Scotland could face a “nursing crisis” in coming years, with the number of new nursing and midwifery students falling from 3060 last year, to 2700 this year and 2430 next year.

The drop was reflected in intake figures for Edinburgh Napier University, with just 514 new students enrolling in nursing and midwifery courses this year, compared to 697 in 2009-10.

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More than a third of Scotland’s nurses are over 50, leading to concerns that there may not be enough new members of the profession to replace them.

The national figures were published last month in the Royal College of Nursing’s annual Labour Market Review.

The organisation’s Scotland director, Theresa Fyffe, urged the Government not to continue to cut numbers in 2013-14.

At the University of Edinburgh – which offers only nursing and not midwifery courses – the figures remained more stable, with 35 enrolling this year, compared to 38 in 2011, 29 in 2010 and 33 in 2005.

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Total nursing days lost to sickness | Days lost to stress, anxiety and depression

2008-9 88,133 10,581

2009-10 100,461 14,826

2010-11 99,371 16,196

2011-12 95,652 17,593